'Better prepared than we have ever been'

Gov. Haley Barbour said Wednesday during a statewide hurricane drill that Mississippi is prepared for the upcoming storm season. It's a good thing: even as he spoke the first named storm of the year was swirling off the southeast coast.

The National Hurricane Center said Subtropical Storm Andrea had sustained winds of around 45 mph Wednesday, but didn't appear to pose a major threat.

Andrea formed some three weeks before the official June 1 start of hurricane season, and popped up at the same time Mississippi Emergency Management officials were conducting a two-day drill aimed at gauging the state's new hurricane plan.

"We are better prepared than we have ever been," Barbour said during a news conference at MEMA headquarters in Pearl. But, the governor warned that people need to make their own preparations and plans for what they would do if a storm threatens the state.

"The government cannot do everything that needs to be done for everybody if there is a significant disaster like a hurricane," Barbour said. "The biggest thing that helped us in losing so few lives in Katrina despite the incredible devastation was the efforts of people to take care of themselves - people that evacuated, people that moved inland far enough to get out of harm's way."

The hurricane drill, which began Tuesday with a simulated Category 3 storm bearing down on the Mississippi coast, involved every major state agency, the National Guard and local emergency operations officials.

Some forecasters say this could be a busy hurricane season, predicting as many as 17 tropical storms and hurricanes. However, the federal government has not yet released its predictions.

In Mississippi, officials revised the state's hurricane plan after Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, and tweaked it after last year's mild hurricane season in the Gulf region. The hurricane drill was a way to test lines of communication and new procedures.

One major change in the plan is the use of school buses to evacuate coastal residents who don't have the means to head north on their own.

MEMA Director Mike Womack said he estimates that some 5,000 coastal residents would need transportation if a major evacuation was ordered. Thousands of people on the coast are still living in temporary housing that is especially susceptible to high winds and those residents would put a heavy burden on area storm shelters, officials say.

Before the drill began, some emergency operations directors on the coast said they were concerned the state's plan relies too heavily on Internet communications, which were not available in South Mississippi for several days after Katrina.

Womack said he hopes the drill alleviated those fears.

"We're going to have MEMA personnel in every one of those emergency operations centers and if they need help and they can't get it through the Internet, we have satellite phones and satellite radios and they'll be able to communicate with us verbally," Womack said. "There are back ups to the flow of information."

The state will also have more Mississippi Army National Guard soldiers available this year for the storm season than when Katrina hit in 2005, said Maj. Gen. Harold A. Cross, Mississippi's adjutant general.

There were nearly 4,000 state Guard soldiers deployed to Iraq during Katrina, but this year there are only about 350 overseas. Cross said 8,500 Mississippi Guard soldiers are available this year for duty in a hurricane strikes.